Exercise versus osteoarthritis medicine

Last modified: August 2, 2019

Osteoarthritis is a disease that used to be largely treated surgically. Today, a different approach is taken to treating osteoarthritis. These days, the disease is primarily treated using exercise, weight control and lifestyle changes. Most people who are diagnosed with osteoarthritis are prescribed exercise. In addition, pain-relieving medications can be used. Natural remedies are also used by many patients as a form of osteoarthritis medicine – even if the effects are still not scientifically proven.

Osteoarthritis medicine – is there such a thing?

The pain that develops with osteoarthritis can be treated with medication. However, the medication does not treat the disease itself, but rather just the symptoms. The medicines that are primarily used are pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications. Cortisone injections can also be used to produce a pain-relieving effect. The goal of medication is primarily to temporarily relieve the pain so that the affected person can complete the exercises. Training is namely the only form of treatment that is currently recognized to treat the disease over the long term. Pain-relieving medications are thereby just a complement to the training.

Natural medicines to treat osteoarthritis

There are a number of natural remedies that are sold as osteoarthritis medication. A few of the more popular ones include rose hip powder, turmeric and green-lipped mussels. Several scientific studies have been performed on these substances, but the improvement that can be detected is comparable to a placebo. (A placebo is not a real effect from the preparation that is given, rather it is simply a psychological effect.) This means that healthcare personnel who work with osteoarthritis, for example physicians physiotherapists, cannot recommend natural remedies as medications for osteoarthritis.

However, the placebo effect should not be underestimated because it can be very powerful. People who experience improvement from natural remedies can continue to use these as a type of medicine for osteoarthritis. An increased quality of life does not always need to be proven scientifically.

Read more about treating osteoarthritis with natural remedies.

Cortisone injections and strong pain-relievers for osteoarthritis

In certain cases, osteoarthritis can be treated with the help of cortisone injections. In these cases, cortisone is injected directly into the affected joint which, similar to pain relievers, provides temporary and short-term pain relief. Because the injection cannot cure the disease and only soothes the pain temporarily, this is not a recommended method over the long term. In certain cases, cortisone can also be damaging to the cartilage, particularly if the injections are given over a long period.

In terms of strong, prescription medications (such as morphine), these should not be used for osteoarthritis. Because osteoarthritis is a chronic disease, the risk of developing a dependency increases. Simultaneously, the effect of these types of medications is no better than the effect of an NSAID (e.g. Diklofenak, Ipren, Naproxen).

Medicine or exercise which is better?

Exercise and medicine should not be seen as competing with each other. Instead, they actually complement each other perfectly. A person who has difficulty exercising due to pain can be helped with pain-relieving medications. At the same time, medication should not be seen as the only solution for treating the disease.

However, exercise can be considered a better alternative since it provides a more long-term solution. Moreover, there are no side effects and it is completely safe to perform (even if it may be painful). But this assumes that the training and exercise are performed correctly, preferably together with the physiotherapist. Education should also be seen as a part of the treatment, because this provides an overall understanding of how and why training and exercise work. However, sometimes none of these methods work and surgery may become necessary.

Here is more information about what an orthopedist recommends for osteoarthritis.